Post-Liberalism as a Dialectical Christian Project
Today’s active discourse on liberalism contra postliberalism features many errors that result in confusion and stale thinking. The most prevalent have the wrong concept of liberalism and, as a direct consequence, fail to understand the common good, a key notion for postliberalism. The recently published essay “Liberalism and the Common Good” by Anthony Mills perfectly illustrates such errors, as if remaining within the established paradigm of thought makes thinkers more prone to being victims of its traps. Multiple reasons explain this proliferation of errors in discussing politics, all flowing from a single source: modern reason, the instrument that liberalism posits as the means to reach truth. Such reason, it claims, is not only universally shared across individuals, but only it can serve as the proper secular standalone basis for the development of political philosophy. Put this way, reason is its own transcendental.
Under liberalism then, reason needs no appeal to God, to a higher purpose or to anything theological; instead, it must be stripped from everything religious and made public. Such a view of reason does away with teleology altogether. Yet, the grand narrative of separating man from God as a philosophical paradigm has developed a great contradiction from which it might never recover. In agony, the “age of reason” as the legacy of the Enlightenment thinkers—meaning liberalism in all its modern and postmodern derivations—has been gasping for air and fighting for its life ever since the devastating Derridean critique of reason itself as a certain tool to achieve truth. For Christians in particular, this marks the beginning of the end of an all-encompassing dialectical project, where Christendom is the thesis and the “reason narrative” is the antithesis. We should now be entering the postliberal synthesis, and to be extremely careful not to fall into reactionism while avoiding the pitfalls of modernity, we ought to be guided by true participative reason, the Logos.
History of Liberalism: From the Enlightenment to Postmodernism
The story of Western secularization has been told and retold almost too many times. Among others, nominalist William of Ockham, rationalist René Descartes, materialist Thomas Hobbes, and empiricists Francis Bacon and John Locke, are the first thinkers to give form to the movement toward secularism. Historical circumstances, counting events such as violent religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the development of technology which would eventually catapult the world into an industrial revolution, are of course significant factors which pushed Europeans to develop a wholly different paradigm of thought for political organization. The overall result of increasing secularism in the West has been to relegate “religion” as a mere private good, among many others, that the liberal individual can choose to consume.
With the Enlightenment, religion indeed lost its fundamental role for providing humanity with an entire metaphysical reality giving ground to all other considerations of life, for instance: politics, economics, law, &c. What religion had to offer was no longer considered necessary, replaced with an idea that literally moved history according to Hegel: the idea of reason. As a matter of fact, the unifying theme throughout all Enlightenment thought is a very specific concept of reason, exemplified by the Kantian idea of pure reason, completely detached from the body. This concept of reason is modern reason, that is almost a cliche of intellectual history for it was inherited directly from Descartes’s famous cogito ergo sum, entirely derived from the spirit of the individual. In other words, modern reason is reduced to a faculty which human beings possess to think critically about themselves in the world, and with which they ascertain their nature and their natural ends, directing their actions toward these very ends. There is no body and above all there is no God to orient reason since it is sufficient on its own. Modern reason proceeds from the individual as mere mind, to serve the individual as the only purpose it accepts.
Erroneous views of liberalism makes sense within the framework of modern reason. Two concepts are systematically brought forth: liberalism as “political philosophy with its own principles and aims” on the one hand, and “liberalism as a form of government” on the other. The latter is what Mills describes as a regime with its own laws, institutions, practices, traditions, values, and habits, which include representative democracy, individual rights, civil society, constitutionalism, rule of law, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and limited government. Neither conception is satisfying for both fail to consider the most significant character of liberalism: it constitutes a “secular” comprehensive worldview in the Rawlsian sense ironically akin to religion. In fact, it is best characterized by Adrian Vermeule, following Ryszard Legutko, as one of the most successful religions in human history. A conceptualization he correctly details in the following manner:
“Liberalism has a soteriology, an eschatology, a clergy (or “clerisy”), and sacraments, centered on the confession and surrender of privilege, the redemption of declaring oneself an “ally,” the overcoming of the dark past of prejudice and unreason—a past that is itself always in motion, so that the night of unreason may well suddenly come to mean what everyone believed last year. Liberalism “immanentizes the eschaton,” as we know, and part of this process is to immanentize the threat of political damnation, by relentlessly pressing the claim that the only political alternatives to liberalism are sectarian strife, communism, or fascism—but especially fascism. Even at this late hour liberals still insist upon this false alternative, even as it visibly becomes less persuasive to polities around the world, which have realized that there are stable, peaceful, and non-tyrannical political regimes that are not liberal regimes.”
Liberalism, therefore, cannot be reduced to a mere political philosophy in the modern sense, and it is certainly not this suggested neutral medium of political organization where decisions are taken deliberatively, guided by a neutral public reason. On the contrary, liberalism’s false advertisement of neutrality is a façade to camouflage its normative commitments. Modern reason hides these normative commitments through the atomization of the human beings’ telos. Exempt of any appeal to transcendental teleology, reason serves as the self-sufficient basis to determine its own purpose. The telos or the end of one’s life consequently is defined by the individual himself, subjectively.
Consistent with this metaphysical framework, political authority under liberalism fails to appreciate the common good. Liberals will indeed confuse the very idea of the common good with goods held in common, a confusion often revealed through the use of plural “common goods,” or even with the total sum of goods achieved and enjoyed as a member of a particular community, also labelled as common goods. For one, Mills is guilty of falling into such confusion, but he is not alone since his thought is a mechanical consequence of modern reason. If the metaphysical assumption is that there is no objective end to human life, then the State has no objective end but to protect the multiplication of the polity members’ subjective ends. Or as I have written elsewhere:
“The modern liberal State differs from other organizations in that it is characterized by a particular abandonment of teleology: its properly defined telos would be to ensure that all individuals and freely associated individuals in organizations are free to define and act upon their own ends, defined only by themselves. As a matter of fact, the telos of modern liberal States is not merely unknown or absent, which would be conceptually impossible because organizations are directed orders, but thoroughly procedural and therefore completely void of actual substance. . . There is no view of the common good except that the common good must hold all individuals, subjects of the State, atomized and free to pursue their own good, their own end. In this system, authority comes from the individual and stops with it, and the modern liberal State exists to ensure that this dynamic is maintained. This the liberal paradigm brands neutral. Despite the pretenses to neutrality however, the modern liberal State in defining itself as a “negative” force to protect individuals from being harmed and being limited in their rights and freedoms entail a substance of hyperindividualized norms, behaviours and relationships, effectively suppressing the true common good for there is nothing common to hold valuable. These are not the principles but the real effects of liberalism.”
Francis Fukuyama himself, the scholar who officially proclaimed the eschatological dimension of liberalism, wrote very recently that the “deeper understanding of liberalism” consists not in a pragmatic position in the face of violence between groups with competing views of final ends, but in that it “protects diversity by deliberately not specifying higher goals of human life.” Once locked in the cave of individualism, the common good is only seen as a shadow on the wall.
From modern reason thus flows the modern liberal idea of the State. This idea is at odds with the classical approach to politics, also central to postliberalism, which understands society as the conscious coordinated activity of persons for a common end. With the classical idea of political philosophy, the end of politics is nothing else than the common good. It is simply untrue, like Mills contends, that the common good has never been accurately defined. Of the most esteemed sources, for instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “by common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’ The common good concerns the life of all.” The common good means the perfection of the polity members into social virtue.
Without a doubt, modern reason has had its focal advantages, clearly seen in the development of Western civilization from the 16th century Reformation until today. While liberals will boast undeniable examples of moral progress, certainly overlooking all instances of retrogression, technological advancement remains the absolute most significant accomplishment of modern reason. The level of material comfort it has allowed the average people to attain simply is too impressive not to highlight, demonstrating the success of liberalism by its own standards, one that is empirically observed, measured and analyzed statistically. In wiping out countless famines and diseases, in greatly eradicating extreme poverty across the globe, in ameliorating the medical services, in facilitating access to information and communication on an international scale, to name a few, the heritage of the Enlightenment claims the victory of progress.
Nonetheless, it turned out that modern reason claimed victory too quickly, that it and its accompanying liberalism could not constitute the end of history, regardless of how it pretends to. As explained, a key part of the modern reason narrative is to separate the Logos in two, isolating the idea from the form, without interest for all knowledge and reality deemed outside the mind. Derrida of all the postmodernists understood this the best and brought modern reason to its most extreme and ugly expression through the very act of deconstruction. In the logocentric liberal world, all is text, all is dialogue, all is language, all is ideas, because modern reason necessarily would not allow for more. But precisely, these are constructs of societal organization filled with experience, choices, values, ideologies, dynamics which all “trace” the words used in discourse and consequently give rise to privileged notions over others. Thus, there is systematically greater interpretation within our taken-for-granted truths that the supposed objectivity of modern reason suggests. This is what Fukuyama misses in pointing to the “discontents on the left” with the social injustices of liberalism: the postmodern critique attacks the liberal epistemology as a whole, not mere instances of inequalities. The postmoderns are claiming that liberalism is a failed religion for it venerates a false God.
The grand Derridean deconstruction then has not demonstrated that modern reason, and its institutionalized use under Western logocentrism, is completely useless and prevents one to attain truth; much worse, it has been to show the important limits of modern reason in reaching all truth, or the absolute truth. This goes directly against the premise of liberalism that modern reason stands as the metric for all measurements, and that its activity in history inevitably leads to the absolute truth. In doing so, the French intellectual plunged the liberal world in aporia over its own epistemological foundations. The very tool which allowed modern liberalism to exist, flourish and endeavor to take ground hegemonically, in a both universal and eschatological movement, was proven unreliable for all tasks. Such is the ultimate paradox of the reason narrative: postmodernism is simultaneously the apogee of modern liberalism, and its utter contradiction.
Toward a Christian Synthesis
However, this should not mean that the reason narrative must be done away with altogether. There are things to be learned from the reason narrative, precisely because it provides us with deeper insights into the notion of reason itself, which Saint Thomas Aquinas correctly indicated is key to any proper understanding of the natural world. With the inevitable coming of accelerated technological development, which will radically influence our perception of the world in both its material and immaterial form, merely looking back to the past would be a grave mistake.
Postmodernism, and particularly Derridean poststructuralism, lays out the intellectual groundwork for radical changes in a manner which must be opposed. The answer to a civilization built on shaky footing is not to deconstruct the civilization as a whole, although such an approach seems convenient to the many interested in signalling virtue rather than sacrificing for the well-being of future generations. Further even, the answer cannot be to increasingly deconstruct worldviews, in an attempt to render justice, to an extent where the individual is left alone, without structures, without real communities, without families, uniquely himself, and thoroughly atomized. Finally, the answer is not the complete separation of the spirit from anything material—the Ego and its own. Only one outcome under those circumstances is predictable: pulverizing through deconstruction all intrinsic characteristics of human beings, which is within liberalism reduced to the individual, means that human beings themselves will have to be redefined and reconstructed, potentially with the help of dangerous concepts instrumentalized by dangerous interests.
On the contrary, it is time for a Christian synthesis of liberalism. The project is needed to correct the errors of modern reason, account for its limitations and complement it with a body in order to mirror the eternal Logos, perfectly embodied in the figure of Jesus Christ. An archetype of reason, the Son of God the Father indeed exists as more than a mere idea: he physically walked the Earth among us, and the Word consists simultaneously of the pronounced discourse, notions abstract to appeal to the mind, sublimely aligned with concrete actions, to reason in real material actuality. The Logos cannot be reduced to reason in spirit like modern reason suggests because it is also reason in body. The human being naturally endowed with reason is living in the physical world and through reason can understand good and evil, meaning that through reason natural teleology becomes intelligible allowing one to participate in the eternal good by directing his actions toward his telos, the beatific vision of God. Humans are integral to what Pope Saint John Paul II referred to as a participated theonomy: what transpires in the natural world participates in the all-encompassing cosmological order ruled by the Divine. Reason, or Logos, is participative and so teleology is intrinsic to it. To reconceptualize reason in this participative manner is to give the foundational tool underlying the Western civilizational framework more depth, and greater truth.
Put differently, metaphysical improvement must precede epistemological improvement. Reason in history therefore cannot simply argue for historicism because it is eternally present as Logos, for what effectively changes is the natural appreciation and understanding of the eternal truth. The dialectic herein proposed to synthesize Christendom with liberalism purposefully aims at shining light on reason which has been present all along, but to which we have been blind. It can be thought of as a bridge for all comprehensive doctrines with a positive view forward, far from cynical reactionism often found in self-described postliberal thinking. The importance of a participative reason as basis for the grand epistemological framework through which worldviews are expressed cannot be overstated in the face of the increasingly overwhelming issues modern liberalism seems incapable of resolving. Moreover, there is a worrying number of fairly possible upcoming issues before which the answers of modern liberalism are assuredly predictable, yet blatantly inadequate. A new conceptualization of reason as participative becomes absolutely necessary with the emergent new frontiers of technology like artificial intelligence, the increasing economic instabilities and astronomical debt levels, the incessant pillage of the earth for resources, mankind’s arrogant presumption with climates, and the unresolved millennial clashes between comprehensive worldviews which far outlast liberalism—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to name one among many.
In these times, one must conclude that it is preferable to think rigorously about these issues right now, lifted by sound metaphysics, and start grappling with actual solutions before misery and tragedy forces humanity into it. The pragmatism in dealing with violence among groups that has historically favored the liberal position now warrants for a synthesis toward a better worldview. We are living today in a drastically different reality than the post-Reformation and post-European wars of religion era of the Enlightenment thinkers. We have harvested the fruits of their reflections. This, I believe, is the only true reading of postmodernism: an appeal to go beyond the philosophical paradigm of liberalism through rethinking its core notion of reason. For anyone genuinely looking to fully grasp the project of postliberalism, all attention should be directed toward the Logos as the true alternative to the flawed concept of modern reason.
M. Anthony Mills, “Liberalism and the Common Good”, Law & Liberty, September 28, 2020. ↩︎
See John Rawls, Political Liberalism, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the public sphere”, 14 European Journal of Philosophy, 1–25. ↩︎
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). ↩︎
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). ↩︎
René Descartes, A Discourse on the Method (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). ↩︎
This is not to say here that there is no place for God in Descartes’s philosophy, or in any liberal philosophy for that matter, on the contrary. The particularity of modern reason is that God, or any telos, does not direct nor inform reason, see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). ↩︎
On the notion of comprehensive worldview, or comprehensive doctrine, see John Rawls, supra note 2. ↩︎
Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (New York: Encounter Books, 2016). See also Adrian Vermeule, “Liturgy of Liberalism”, First Things, January 2017. ↩︎
Adrian Vermeule, “Integration from Within,” American Affairs II, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 202–13. ↩︎
Patrick J Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018) at 188. ↩︎
Xavier Foccroulle Ménard, “The Legal Pluralism of True Integralism”, New Polity, September 15, 2020. ↩︎
Francis Fukuyama, “Liberalism and Its Discontents”, American Purpose, October 5, 2020. ↩︎
Cathechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993), art 1906. ↩︎
"Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992)". ↩︎
Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). ↩︎
See, ibid at 61, and Chapter 2 on “Linguistics and Grammatology” and more generally at 27–73. ↩︎
Fukuyama, “Liberalism”, supra note 12. ↩︎
Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia.1.1. ↩︎
Max Stirner, The Ego and its Own (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). ↩︎
Pope Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (Vatican, 1993) at para 42. ↩︎
Ibid at para 41. ↩︎
Many commentators, including myself, have pointed out the fact that a great number of postliberal positions take place within the liberal paradigm itself by thinking about the State and its proper use to attain the common good in a modern liberal fashion. See eg Andrew Willard Jones, “What States Can’t Do”, New Polity, July 24, 2020; Marc Barnes & Andrew Willard Jones, “Localism Beyond Libertarianism: A Response to Susannah Black”, New Polity, September 2, 2020; Foccroulle Ménard, supra note 12; Jason Blakely, “The Integralism of Adrian Vermeule”, Commonweal, October 5, 2020; Michael Handby, “For and Against Integralism”, First Things, March 2020. ↩︎
Featured Image: St. Peter's Basilica in painting (c. 1630) by Viviano Codazzi via Wikimedia Commons.
Xavier Foccroulle Ménard holds a B.C.L. and an LL.B./JD from McGill University Faculty of Law and an LL.M. in legal theory from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He clerked at the Superior Court of Québec and worked at top-tier law firms in Montréal and Paris. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.